A personal manifesto for a User-Centric web

A pretty walled garden

A pretty walled garden

There are walls all around us. We live our lives realizing that we have to live with rules and limitations. We have laws to obey,  values to live by, families we are part off, countries we live in, services we make use of, gravity that pulls us down, freedom of speech, natural resources, food, water, money. Everything we do in life comes with a set of rules.

The existence of some of these boundaries is something we tend to ignore. We are taught to aim for the highest, get the best out of our own potential, be a winner. There are no problems, only challenges. Can you see an athletic coach explaining to the world fastest sprinter that it is impossible to sprint 100m in 4.5 seconds? No way. You need to train harder, overcome your fears and doubts. You can accomplish anything if  you really want to. Work hard until you reach your goals. Just do it!

We don’t like it to be captured. If we bump into a boundary we will try to get around it. If it is a problem, we will try to resolve it. If the wall is bigger then ourselves we will try to mobilize others to help us.If we don’t deal with a wall that stands in the way then at least we will complain often about it (dissatisfied customers that can’t leave a service).

It seems to me that we sometimes act very differently online. Sure, if there is something to complain about we harness the power of all the publishing tools and cry outrage. But when it comes to the core of our online presence, our personal identity we willingly accept the boundaries that the big web companies have set for us.

There is a war out there, a battle to own your online identity. Driven by network value based business models service providers aim at unlimited growth. We get sucked into the best web 20 services. It’s free and it’s cool. Big service providers fights to get you in and then never let you out. It’s like a black hole. You, your personal data, your interactions and friends.

We seem to accept this a a fait accompli. That is the way the web works. Nothing we can do about it. We give away our online identity for free and in return accept the boundaries and limitations the service providers give us. Google shows you their web, which is different from Yahoo’s web, or Facebook’s web for that matter. We let Social Networks own and exploit our personal data, our interactions, our family and our friends. We create the value of those networks ourselves yet accept that these networks impose (sometimes ridiculous) boundaries on us.

All effort goes into enlarging the network, the data, and few big service providers put as much effort in setting you and your data free again from that very service. Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t all bad, or even intentional. And the value we get in return can be very high! I’m a happy user of many web 2.0 services and I am amazed at what technology can do for us. There are many services, organizations and individuals out there that have a user value focus.

However we are often blinded by the coolness factor, the joy, the zero cost participation, hype created by the media, following the crowd, getting sucked in by friends (that’s called viral growth, which in itself doesn’t have a very healthy sound) we join everything and accept that our online identity isn’t ours. But at what cost?

The biggest threat in my opinion is that in this process we let a few very big service provider decide for us where the walls are build. What boundaries and rules we need to live by. We are giving away our online identity for free in order to be able to participate.

Tim O’Reilly nailed the web 2.0 definition when he said:

Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the Internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them.

It has become part of our history books now. The network effect Tim mentions has lead to an undesirable side effect. Driven by network value business models some service providers are not just viewing the Internet as a platform. Instead they are aiming to ensure that their own platform becomes the Internet!

That is a boundary I’m personally not willing to accept. Why should I be confined to one network, or accept that my online identity is not only scattered but not even my own? In a true service provider model, the user is in control of his identity, his data and his interactions. The user needs to be able to define his own ‘Terms of Service’, which are to be respected by the service provider. It’s web 2.0, inside out.

It is something I am passionate about. It’s why I write about it often. But that isn’t enough. I can’t complain about it if I am not really contributing to changing this. I feel I should take my own responsibility and join those that are already working on it, no matter how small or insignificant my contribution is.

It means professionally that I’ll be spending as much time and effort on letting users control their own identity, data and interactions, as I spend time on getting these users in the first place. It means changing the ‘terms of service’ from protecting a business (model) to serving the user. It means embracing standards like OpenId to let people decide where they create their online identity. It means supporting efforts to define solutions that will put the user in control of his online identity.

Joining discussions already taking place. Helping the big service providers change their strategy. Making sure that the Internet isn’t confined to a single platform. Choosing business  models that leverage user value instead of network value. And perhaps most important of all, educating those unaware of the importance of their online identity. It’s an effort for the long run. I don’t expect fast changes or revolutions over night. But any journey start simply by taking the first step, and by writing this down.

I’m taking my first and I’m joining those that have already gone down this path.


About vanelsas

See my about page, https://vanelsas.wordpress.com/about/ ;-)
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5 Responses to A personal manifesto for a User-Centric web

  1. I do find it unappealing that every social website I sign up for immediately shoots to the top of the Google search results for my name. Twitter, friendfeed, facebook, stackoverflow… I could get around this in two ways, I suppose: 1) create my own content which is so compelling as to shoot past everything else in pagerank, or 2) consistently use a pseudonym. Option #1 is highly unlikely, option #2 is unappealing. So I’m not sure what to do about it.

  2. It’s true that what a lot of these social networks are doing is keeping you within their walls by any means. Obviously, that’s not right. What FB is doing with the usernames is just one more small step in trying to convince advertisers they have the motherload of all databases. It’s wrong.

    But you make it sound like it’s a prison where choice is something none of us have. Sure, you have to accept their rules if you want to play along, but it’s still your choice to make. First joining and than complaining when the rules were clear is something I wouldn’t get away with, even in first grade.
    It’s a shared responsibility. Look at how FB rewrote their privacy statement after they first tried and changed it? It’s a great example of how we still have some power left. There are few things in life you’re not responsible for.

    Though I don’t believe that social networks build their empires based upon the notion that they could rip us off in the future by selling our personal data in a malicious way in the first place, I don’t see any difference between the salesguy who convinces you to take the 60 inch plasma, even though you don’t need it. They sell and idea and see how far it can go. That’s not a bad thing, a lot of good things came out of this and true, also a lot of bad things. But it’s a shared responsibility to change anything.

    That salesperson is not a bad person, he doesn’t want to harm the one he sells that tv to, he just sees how far he can go. It’s the buyer who should know better.

    Anyhow… if you’re right (and in a way, I hope you do)… I see a lot of litigations lawsuits coming…

    • @Tom,

      first of all, thanks for taking the time for such a lengthy comment!

      I’m all for taking your own responsibility. People join Social Networks and do have a choice (participate or not). That is a difficult choice, it will introduce a digital divide that isn’t really necessary.

      There are too many important things that you cannot take responsibility for yourself:
      – Most people do not read 25 pages of legal terms of use and are therefore unaware what the consequence of joining is. It may be a shared responsibility, but you can hardly blame people for not really doing or understanding this.
      – There is no way for you to be in full control of your appearance in the network. For example, if you visit my profile on Facebook, you might see advertisement there. I do not know that they are there, or what their nature is (dating?). What does that say about me? I don’t want to be associated with that advertisement towards my friends?
      – You can rarely extract the data that you uploaded from the network, and in many cases it is even against the terms of service
      – You, your friends, and all of your interactions (data) are exploited. I’m not sure I would call it malicious, but it is totally different in nature from the guy selling you the plasma screen example. He doesn’t know who your friends are, what you discuss with them unless you specifically tell him. The network knows everything and leverages that information. You may choose to accept that, but I’m wondering how many people are really aware of this?
      – Social Networks provide privacy controls. So far so good. These privacy controls help you to decide who can see what part of your online identity. But there isn’t a single privacy control that protects your identity from the Social Network itself.

      I could go on, the list is much longer than that. I feel that your online identity is too important to leave that to a company that has a business model that exploits your identity and interactions. Your online identity should be secure with a third party that serves only one purpose. Put you in control of your identity. You can still socialize in Social Networks, but you would then be in control, instead of leaving that control to the network. Big difference imo.

      I’m not suggesting that the big companies are malicious or have bad intentions. I do not believe that is the case. Having said that, I also believe that the balance in power is tilted too much to the big networks. Balance should be restored and users should have full control over their own online identity.

  3. I do find it weird to see a lot of people just joining up with services to communicate with people. It’s like having eight mobile phones with eight different provides, so I can stay in touch with all my contacts.
    People are too much just looking at what the other guy (or girl 🙂 ) is doing, instead of using their heads and looking at what services work the best. In my opinion since the global adoption of email there has been no decent communication service introduced. The simple reason for this is that you can only communicate with people inside the specific network. It’s stupid to think that this has enough value to stay with that service. Let’s just all stick to email until services start connecting up, like our phone network does.

  4. I just have a lot of difficulty with people who read every letter in a contract, when they sign a loan, when they negotiate every detail of a new job offer but don’t take the time or effort to do the same online. So yes, I think you’re wrong when you say the online privacy statement isn’t the responsibility of the user. It is. How annoying is it to talk to people who don’t care who to vote for just before election time, but can’t stop complaining afterwards?

    Think the problem is that most people just don’t take it seriously, while they really should. The companies, just like banks, governement, take themselves very seriously, but not the user. How can you blame the company for the lack of interest of their users. They provide the information, maybe unreadable and shady, but I see no difference from the contracts I have to sign sometimes. I love what you do. A very transparant, open en user-friendly dotcom. But you took your responsibility, let the users take theirs.

    To avoid misunderstandings, I fully agree with your goal. Users should get full control of their online identity, I just don’t agree with the way how you want to get there.
    But hey… as long as we get there right?

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